Overcrowding Expected at South County

Overcrowding Expected at South County

Newly opened school may become Fairfax County's most overcrowded.

South County Secondary School in Lorton, which opened in September, is poised to become Fairfax County's most overcrowded school, according to new enrollment projections announced last week.

Next year, school officials expect South County to be more than 500 students over its 2,500-student capacity. By 2010, the officials project the school will be overcrowded by more than 840 students.

"I wouldn't call it a crisis, but it's definitely a problem," said Dean Tistadt, the school system's assistant superintendent for the Department of Facilities and Transportation.

"I don't think we've ever had a school become so crowded, so quickly," Tistadt said.

The looming student population explosion at South County will probably require as many as 28 classes to be taught in trailers, Tistadt said.

Luckily, many of the school's core facilities — such as the cafeteria, corridors and bathrooms — were built to accommodate as many as 3,000 students. Though things will be tight, the school can handle the forthcoming influx of students, Tistadt said.

With so many extra students, parking will likely become an issue as 2010 nears, as will the difficulty of joining the school's sports teams and selective academic activities.

"I'm extremely concerned about this," said School Board Member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon). "I was very surprised at the enrollment numbers for South County. The new projections are 20 percent higher than we expected."

TWO KEY FACTORS during the school system's enrollment projections led to South County's expected overcrowding.

First, the school system's planning staff did not realize so many teenagers who had attended private school would choose to attend the new school.

Second, the school system did not expect so many students who had attended schools outside their regular district by "pupil placement" would also decide to enroll at South County.

Three options exist to remedy the school's overcrowding in the coming years, Tistadt said. These possibilities are:

* Expedite construction of the South County Middle School. The school, which would convert South County Secondary to a four-year high school, is not scheduled to break ground before 2015.

* Build an addition to South County Secondary School, creating more classroom space and keeping the school for students in grades 7 to 12.

* Redraw the student enrollment boundaries for South County Secondary School, possibly carving out neighborhoods from the district and sending them to Hayfield or Lake Braddock secondary schools — both of which are projected to be under-enrolled.

Nothing has yet been decided, Storck said. The School Board is just beginning to assess South County's over-enrollment problem and will decide a course of action in the coming months, he said.

"At this point, all I know for sure is that it appears our enrollment projection process is flawed and needs to be comprehensively re-evaluated." Storck said.

FIVE STUDENTS were added to the school's population in the last week alone, said South County principal Dale Rumberger, which he credits to the end of the first marking period and the completion of some homes in the Pulte townhouse development across the street from the school.

He is well aware that his school, just over nine weeks old, is quickly filling up with students, but said he's trusting his "phenomenal" student body and their parents to endure the school's growing pains calmly and rationally.

Pointing to an aerial photograph of the school taken before its opening last summer, Rumberger indicated "three or four" places where trailers could be placed or where wings could be extended. A hill could be "smoothed out," he said, the Kiss and Ride lot could be removed, a part of the large parking lot near the main office could be reclaimed if needed.

"We are beginning to assess our future needs based on student enrollment selections, what we're seeing in terms of elective staying power and what I have the facilities for," Rumberger said. Additional students wanting to participate in band classes, for example, won't necessarily mean a need for more teachers or classrooms.

The parents in the community understand the complexities of opening a new facility in a rapidly-growing area, Rumberger said. "They knew there would be an initial start up and some reorganizing. We're still getting to know each other, we'll continue to review what makes sense and what doesn't," he said.

If given the chance to redesign the school, Rumberger said he wouldn't make any changes. For him, the growing enrollment numbers are just another obstacle to overcome for an area that has been facing them for years.

"The desirability of this area for houses is something you had to experience to understand," he said. "Fifteen years ago, when we were moving our family here, people asked us what we were thinking. Now they're asking if any of our neighbors are selling. My goal is to create a school the community will be proud of and that the system will know as the next incredible addition to its collection," Rumberger said.

SOME PARENTS, however, are wondering how the new school could become filled to capacity so quickly.

"It was clear to those of us who live here that the boundary study they decided on would give [the school] more kids than it could handle," said Liz Bradsher, a Fairfax Station parent who worked on several task forces established to redevelop the former Lorton Prison area.

Bradsher said she had spoken with U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) in 1999 about the need for a school in the southern part of the county, and they had talked about the growing population in the area.

"If a congressman knows of this situation, I cannot believe the School Board was so naive not to know the impact it would have on students that were placed outside the boundary," she said. "Taxpayers shouldn't have to put up with this year after year. They crushed our dream."

Neither Bradsher nor Lisa Adler, president South County Secondary School PTSA, were surprised by the enrollment projections.

"We know it's hard to predict what the numbers would be, we also know the facilities people have a hard time figuring out what the true numbers are," Adler said. "This method of prediction never seems to work in the southern part of the county, so now we just opened a beautiful school and it's already crowded."

Adler said the building was always intended to be a high school, never as a permanent secondary school, and is frustrated that other schools, like Lake Braddock and Hayfield secondary schools, both of which fed into South County Secondary School, will soon be under-enrolled.

"We're not happy," she said. "We want to see responsible discussions that don't upset the spirit of the community we worked so hard to create here. We know it would be best to see a middle school built here, but there are so many other schools with needs ahead of us in the queue."